The Finale of ‘True Detective’ Was Disappointing as Hell

We weary huddled East Coast masses have had quite a winter. “Quite a winter” is the value-neutral language usually used to describe weather and it’s sort of misleading here, because what this winter has actually been is pretty much comprehensively and unrelentingly shitty. It has been wet and cold outside, wetter and colder than any historical precedent would suggest, wet and cold enough to introduce no small degree of uncertainty as to whether this slush-choked hellscape is ever actually going to thaw. And, by extension, to the notion that we are all put here by the grace of a purportedly benevolent creator who wants us to thrive and be happy.

True Detective arrived just before Super Bowl Sunday, just as we were getting into the truly interminable part of this too-long winter, and it’s hard to imagine a series more thematically congruent with recent meteorological phenomena. Rust Cohle, seventeen years ahead of trend on the subject of form-fitting dress shirts, is neurotic skepticism personified; Marty Hart and his persistent impulse toward self-destruction are basically the evidence of same. It asked questions about the nature and feasibility of institutions as varied and diverse as monogamy and religion and charter schools, questions not answered explicitly as much as hinted at through the show’s cinematography and set design and Shea Whigham’s mutton chops. It dealt in dread and in doubt, which cohered nicely with the experience of loading during our long national cold snap.

Logistically, a comprehensive wrapping-up of the all the show’s philosophical musings and peripheral storylines was impossible in an eight-episode arc, and that’s fine. The tidiness of Breaking Bad’s final episodes was received a lot more kindly than the opacity of Tony Soprano’s bathroom trip, but there isn’t—and shouldn’t be—any categorical imperative against open-ended endings. Don’t judge the Entertainment by its ending: this is a reasonable motto for any consumer of narratives.

But True Detective‘s eighth episode, “Form and Void,” didn’t even acknowledge the weight of trying to realize the show’s ambitions. It stripped away everything but the central whodunit. The opening scene confirmed the suspect and essentially emptied out any residual narrative suspense we might have had. The episode gave us exactly one plot point–Marty sleuthing out the “green-eared” part of the green-eared spaghetti monster–and from there it proceeded directly to denouement. Carcosa was Louisiana’s creepiest and least hospitable guest house; the killer came at the gun-wielding detective with a knife; fin. Where are the human-sacrificing cults and the cover-up conspiracies? After all of the totally justified speculation and theorizing, the Yellow King didn’t warrant a single mention in “Form and Void.”

In television and elsewhere, to bite off more than one can chew is no great sin. The season was generously and intelligently written. It was impressively committed to its Pagan Bayou Nightmare visual aesthetic. It created and invested deeply in the development of two complex and compelling characters.

But there was more than a hint of bait-and-switch to “Form and Void”: after a season that indulged every odd tangent, often to magnificently creepy effect, True Detective boiled down to McConaughey and Harrelson chasing down a crazy recluse in the woods. The extent to which this is a satisfactory ending depends entirely on the premise that this is the whole of the story that Nic Pizzolatto was out to tell. Given how many storylines got cursorily waved over in the final episode, it’s hard to take that premise seriously. That flat-circle line ended up being an anti-emblem for a season that resolved itself as linearly as possible, in a way that made all the meticulous allusions and symbolism of the previous episodes seem in retrospect like overly fussed-over window-dressing. True Detective had plenty of tricks left up its sleeve. “Form and Void” tried to tell us that none of them needed be dealt with onscreen.

Weirdly, the series’ end coincided with a noticeable uptick in our national weather-fortunes. For once, you do not need to shovel your walk; depending on your latitude, it is possible that the temperature is over sixty degrees. The sun is shining and diffidence toward weather-persons has been suspended. Truth, in this particular case, was exactly as strange as fiction.

Ross Green is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.